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Two Dalai Lamas?

December 3, 2007
Maclean Kay - Reincarnation is hard enough to grasp, but choosing your
reincarnated self before you die? That’s a really mind-melting concept.

To better ensure a worthy and politically independent successor, the
Dalai Lama has suggested he might select his eventual replacement
himself. This is problematic, because according to Buddhist belief, each
successive Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the one before; His
Holiness’ idea of reincarnating before he actually dies is difficult to
digest. Traditionally, he would be chosen (or, if you prefer, found)
among young boys born in Tibet shortly after the previous Dalai Lama
dies. Lower-level Lamas search Tibet, usually for a few years, seeking
young male children who appear to be familiar with certain possessions
of the previous Dalai Lama. (One can also be forgiven for thinking it’s
not hard to find two-year-olds who think everything is “mine.”) Once
discovered, the reincarnation is brought to Lhasa to be trained.

The reason for breaking with centuries of religious tradition is nakedly
political. Relations between the Dalai Lama and Beijing have seldom been
worse. Beijing considers Tibet an integral part of China, and isn’t shy
about making it so: thousands of ethnic Han Chinese have been moved
there, which the Dalai Lama has called “cultural genocide.” What’s more,
Beijing claims the next Dalai Lama will need its permission to be
reincarnated. That is, the reincarnation of the Living Buddha would be
selected by an officially atheist communist. By seizing control of the
selection process, Beijing hopes to co-opt a persistent irritant and
quash not only Tibetan separatist sentiment, but considerable sympathy
for it worldwide.

Did His Holiness overplay his hand? Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike
may be forgiven for puzzling over the idea of reincarnating before
death. While wonder is a prerequisite for religion, can too much wonder
lead to outright disbelief?

The truth is this is nothing new. Reactions to external or internal
political pressures shape much (not all) of the doctrines and Truths
held dear by many mainstream religions.

For example, if you asked to meet “Jesus Christ” in first-century
Galilee, you’d be met with a blank stare. There is little historical
doubt this man existed, but he certainly wasn’t called Jesus, but Jeshua
or Yahshua. Why wouldn’t he be referred to that today? Christians regard
him as the Son of God and saviour of man, but don’t even have his name

In the early years when Christians were still persecuted, a number of
“apologists” wrote open letters defending Christianity, acting much like
news pundits taking positions on current hot topics. They all wrote in
Greek, as was conventional at the time, and used Greek concepts and
ideas to portray Christianity as more than a troublesome, breakaway
Jewish sub-sect. Much like Charles, Carlos, and Karl are linguistic
variations of the same name, when the apologists referred to the Big Man
himself, they used Hellenized version, Iesous. (The letter J wouldn’t
exist for another 1,300 years.) According to the New Advent Catholic
Encyclopedia, some even called him “Jason,” phonetically similar, but
more fashionably heroic. We refer to the Son of God not by what he was
called, but by what others felt was a more marketable, less Jewish name,
just like Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas.

A more recent and much more comparable example: the fourth president of
the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Wilford Woodruff, publicly declared the
end of Mormon polygamy in 1890. He wrote in his diary this was “for the
temporal salvation of the Church,” in the face of fierce American
opposition to Mormons in general and statehood for Utah for particular.
Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Utah became a state of the union six
years later. Woodruff overturned an institution that had been held as a
revelation from God to the first Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, and he
did so for very wordly reasons: namely, statehood.

What appeared to have been cynical acts by the apologists and Woodruff
didn’t diminish the faith of their believers: both Christianity and its
Mormon offshoot thrived afterwards. That’s the thing with faith and
metaphysics: whatever the details, the core principles and beliefs are
unaffected. If Christians call the Son of God by something other than
his name, if Mormon men marry but one woman despite the urgings of their
first prophet, and if the Dalai Lama reincarnates before he dies, these
are still just details. Just like Boccaccio’s Abraham, who witnesses the
Roman clergy’s depravity and converts to Catholicism, because only a
true faith could survive such corruption, people who want to believe can
rationalize just about anything.

If the Living Buddha decides he can reincarnate before he dies, who am I
to argue? Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing him shake hands with
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